The situation: Cardinals and Pirates are tied, 2-2, in the bottom of the seventh. Neil Walker is at the plate. Runners on first and third.
The decision: The Cardinals choose not to hold Jose Tabata at first base.
The outcome: Tabata practically walked to second base. He was credited with a steal, but in a blowout it would have been called defensive indifference. Walker followed with a bouncing single up the middle that scored both runs, and the second run turned out to be the decisive tally in a 4-3 Pirates win.
The analysis: It is, at heart, a straightforward decision. Are you more worried about giving up the base to Tabata? Or are you more worried about the likelihood of Walker poking a single through the hole where Pujols would be if he weren’t holding the runner on base?
The second part, though, is this: Guarding the hole is a move to avoid the FIRST run, the run that breaks the tie and puts you behind. Holding the runner is a move to avoid the SECOND run, the run that extends the deficit. Regardless of anything else, the first run is more important than the second.
TLR decided that he was more inclined to guard against the hit than against the steal, or rather he decided he was more worried about the go-ahead run than the second run.
Some factors to consider:
1, Tabata clearly likes to run, and he’s good at it. He had 25 steals in 31 tries in 53 games at Triple-A this year, was 106-for-140 in 484 career Minor League games, and was 13-for-20 in 65 games in the Majors this year. There’s no doubt he’s a threat to run, especially with two outs and a singles hitter at the plate. If you give him the base, he’s going to take it.
2, TLR definitely had his hitting chart read correctly. Walker’s singles and groundballs rarely go up the middle, and often go to the right side. However, he’s not really a groundball hitter, and you can always adjust how you pitch a guy to account for things like that.
An aside, while we’re at it. I asked Adam Wainwright, who was on the mound at the time, about the decision. And he gave a non-answer. I don’t want to put words in Wainwright’s mouth, so you can take this answer however you wish. But I thought it was telling.
“Well, we had Albert playing back for defensive purposes,” he said. “You’d have to ask the coaches on that. That’s their call.”
The comment: “It’s straightforward. You hold the guy on, the groundball, one run. I felt like if we were going to get him out, I wanted to get him out without him hitting the ball in the hole. He has pulled the ball against us. So he hits a two-run single and we lose by one run. If it’s a bad move, I made the move that I thought gave us the best chance in that inning and to win the game. I have no problem with anybody that had a different opinion.”
My verdict: I’ve turned it over a lot in the past few hours, because TLR was vehement in his defense of the decision and he’s made a lot more tactical calls than I have over the years. But I still can’t get past this: if you give Tabata the base, he’s GOING to take it. He likes to run, and the Pirates let him run.
On the flipside, you don’t know that Walker’s going to hit a groundball through the right side. And even if he does, Pujols has a lot of range. Maybe he gets to it anyway. Maybe Felipe Lopez gets to it.
I understand where TLR was coming from. I absolutely respect and share the strategy of preventing the first run before you worry about the second. That’s by far the most compelling argument, in my opinion. And maybe my assessment is clouded by the results, a second-guess only.
But I still think I would have made some attempt to hold the runner.